The 4 Worst Things About Writing for the Internet
For some reason, people in the entertainment business really like glamorizing the lives of anyone who writes for the Internet. (The show Entourage is supposed to be about a blogger, right? I don't actually follow that show.)Well, regardless of what you may have seen in the movies, being an Internet writer isn't all rock music and promiscuous sex parties (though, yes, that is in fact a pretty substantial part of it). So, before you go trading in your medical degree and stethoscope for some whiskey and an Internet gun, there are a few things you should know about this place first ...
The Internet is Goddamned Enormous
If you've got a TV show, you're competing with other shows in your time slot, or maybe you're competing with TIVO, or Netflix Instant. There's a lot of competition, but as long as you have someone sitting on their couch in front of a television, at least you know that they're probably going to watch something. In the war between sitting in front of a TV and going outside, you've won. They're down to watch, and as long as you exist on a network, there's a decent chance that people will find you, because there are only so many channels.
According to Google Analytics, there are, as of this writing, over infinity active blogs on the Internet. And your article is battling all of them for attention. And you're not just competing against other articles, or even other blogs; you're competing against Facebook, and Wikipedia, and YouTube, and the news, and The Daily Show, and last night's sports scores, and tomorrow's weather, and online games, and an impossible amount of pornography. Just because someone's sitting in front of a computer doesn't mean they're going to read a 2,000-word article, because they can be doing almost anything else. It's a tough market on the Internet. Cheers gets a lot of credit for being a popular show, but Cheers never had to compete with the most comprehensive and specific library of free pornography that has ever existed in human history.
"Let's see, a show about a bunch of alcoholics, or all of the porn?"
There's just an insane amount of content that is constantly pouring into the web, every single day, even without the porn. And that's just the new stuff! You've still got the archives of the entire internet to compete with. Let's put it this way: If Cracked stopped publishing content right now, it would still take one person at least 15 years to read everything we've ever published. And we're just one site out of millions, and we're only four years old.
With all of the content that already exists and all of the content that will exist and every other hard-to-ignore distraction, finding and keeping an audience online is almost impossible, and the early stages of that journey are thankless and terrible. You have to publish a lot, even though absolutely no one will read your stuff for a long time. And before you get an audience, when you're describing your articles or your online novel or whatever you decide to work on, you'll still just be person with a blog in the eyes of anyone who will listen to you, because everyone has a blog. On paper, you are indistinguishable from the 14-year-old with the Angelfire website.
"You run a blog, huh? Neat, my niece runs 135 of those."
But let's say you did find an audience. You published something so good and so smart, something that so perfectly articulated something that everyone was thinking but couldn't put words to, that it spread on the Internet and yielded thousands and thousands of positive comments. That's great. You've done it. You've reached people, and if getting your writing seen was your only goal, you can relax and get that "Nailed It" face tattoo that you hadn't earned until right this minute.
But if you were hoping to get a job, or some recognition, or praise or, let's not split hairs, ass, then you've got another thing coming, because ...
Your Audience Doesn't Know/Care Who You Are
They don't. Obviously, there are exceptions. If you're talented enough, lucky enough, and you work hard, you could develop a legitimate following full of people who know your face and care about the success of your career enough to want to support you every step of the way. But those are the rare exceptions.
Over the past four years, I've written over 200 articles and videos for the Internet. Some were good, lots were bad, most were OK, (and this one, one of my favorite articles of all time, is as terrible as it is riddled with typos). When I tell people who aren't my parents what I do for a living (they think I'm doing investment banking in Pennsylvania), they generally say "Crack.com?" And I say, "No, Cracked." And they say "Cracked like 'broken'?" And I say "Yes, 'Cracked' like 'broken.' Remember the old Cracked Magazine? We're that, but also and mostly not that at all."
"Wait, so are you a magazine or a website? And is my hand in my mouth?"
When the name of this website is finally successfully communicated, it is generally politely pointed out by whomever I'm talking to that they've never heard of the site. Then I explain that we write funny, fact-based list articles about science, history, badasses and pop culture. When I reference a few articles, they light up and say, "Oh my God, I read your site all the time! Every morning at work! It's 'Cracked,' you say?"
And they're not bullshitting. They do read the site, they just don't know it by name. And why would they? This is the Internet, where we're all information junkies. We want the facts, and we want them delivered in the most efficient way possible, maybe with some jokes thrown in. If someone is clicking on an article called "Six Farts That Changed the World (And Four That Didn't)," they're not clicking to see a byline or the personal theories of some author; they're clicking to see if the time Gerald Ford non-sexually farted into Rita Hayworth's open hand made the list (it didn't).
"What can I do to distract from my pardoning of Nixon?"
But, like I said, this isn't an insurmountable problem. There are a lot of ways you can get your audience to remember your name, though the biggest is probably consistency, both in terms of your publishing schedule and the quality of your content. Publish good stuff, and do it often, and people will notice you. If you're a particularly demanding glutton for recognition and attention, I suppose you can regularly include pictures of yourself in your articles, or appear in one or two Web series playing a character named after you, or you could even insert your name into the title of your column twice, if you're some kind of huge prick, or something.)
"Self-promotion? More like 'Self-promO'Brien'!"
Mostly though, be consistent. If you do it long enough, people will notice you, and they'll regularly read your stuff. Maybe they'll even be invested in your stuff, and passionate about it, and then they'll stop being readers and start being ...
Freaking Commenters, Man
The idea of a comment section is wonderful; the opportunity for mass, instant feedback is exciting, useful and totally unique to the internet. Unfortunately, what ends up in a comment section is less "instant feedback" and more "fart noise fart noise racism fart noise."
Almost every video, article and comic on the Internet has a place for comments and it is shocking how consistently horrific commenters can be. They're not just saying, "I want to knock your teeth out with my dick" to some woman singing a song on YouTube, they're saying it after movie trailers, charts, pictures of cats and Wall Street Journal articles. Everywhere.
No one knows why comment sections across the internet are largely negative, vulgar, vaguely racist wastelands of misspelled horror, but that's just how it is. Years and years ago, when the first comment section was invented, some 14-year-old set the tone with racism and vulgarity, and the Internet hasn't really looked back since. Except here, of course, we're actually pretty lucky here. The commenters at Cracked are, for the most part, generally intelligent and fairly thoughtful, in addition to being attractive, dynamic and talented (sexually speaking).
"Darling, there's a new Brockway column. Quickly, let's leave some encouraging comments, and then make love in our vineyard."
But let's say you're not writing for Cracked, and you don't have a built-in fanbase. Let's say you're just starting out, (because getting depressed as a result of negative comments is typically more of a problem for new writers). If you're just a person writing for the Internet, you're leaving yourself open for awful comments, private messages, emails, and attacks and, sure as your born, you will get them. You're also technically leaving yourself open for really great comments but, for some reason, it's much easier to say, "I HATE YOU" than it is to say, "THIS WASN'T TERRIBLE!"
Here are the two things that are true right now: 1) There will always be shockingly offensive comments on anything posted to the Internet. 2) Those comments will always, always be emotionally painful for new writers. No matter how many times you tell yourself "Ignore the commenters" or "they're just being bullies, trolling for some kind of reaction" or whatever, if you're a new writer and you've just spent a week working on an article and the only thing someone says in response is "This is the worst piece of shit I've ever read," it's going to hurt. You can try to act as cool and aloof as you want, but it's never easy to have something you worked hard on shat upon by a few hundred strangers.
"What if the Internet's right? What if I AM a fagosaurus who can only type with my butt?"
At least not at first, anyway. You can get over it. I've been doing this long enough that I've gotten plenty of comments from both ends of the spectrum of Internet Commentry, from the lows of "You're the worst thing to ever happen to writing, I fucking hate you," all the way to the highs of "This article wasn't a piece of shit like your others, I fucking hate you." I've read both of those comments and everything in between them enough times that it's all basically white noise at this point. So there's a possibility that you'll eventually become immune to all comments. Or you could just develop a thicker skin. Or just not read comments at all. Or you can read and intensely focus on every single comment, (though only a total lunatic would do that). Whatever. The point is, you can get to a place where comments don't affect you at all.
And then you'd be fine, except comments are not the worst thing to happen to Internet writers. Not by a long shot ...
People Will Steal Your Shit
You did it. You wrote a thing. You wrote your thing, and it was good. And it found an audience, a big audience, an audience that loves you and is hungry for more of your work. You spent 30 hours researching and 40 hours writing something that was so specifically born out of your tastes, and your experiences, that it could have only come from you.
In the time it took you to read that paragraph, over a hundred blogs stole your article and claimed it as their own.
It happens to us all the time. Someone will remove the "Cracked.com" logo from one of our infographics and repost it on Reddit and Tumblr. High school kids copy and paste our articles into their Wordpress blogs, changing nothing but the byline. "Writers" in foreign countries will sloppily translate our articles for their own sites without permission. On many occasions, popular morning radio DJs have read whole articles, word for word, on the air without so much as a passing mention of Cracked, let alone the poor author who wrote the thing. It happens so often that we have a thread dedicated to it in our forums, a thread that, as of now, is 26 pages long.
Ian Fortey (a former writer of ours and the current Head Honcho over at Holy Taco), recently came across a blog full of articles that the writer had been stealing from Cracked for over a year. The owner of that blog, whose name I can't reproduce here because the button on my keyboard that is just a picture of a flaccid penis weeping over a typewriter is broken at the moment, copy and pasted a bunch of our articles and images onto his site and claimed them as his own. There's a lot more to the story, (including the fact that the guy is hilariously offering to give writing workshops, provided you pay him money), and I encourage you to read all about it over at HolyTaco, but the bottom line is that our writers worked hard and spent a lot of time writing thoughtful, original articles and some shithead with a blog spent less than three minutes stealing them. When something similar happened three years ago, I lost my shit, wrote a long rant about it and replaced all of the images that the guy had stolen from our site with pictures of male genitalia. When one of our writers told me about this new rip-off site, I just shrugged and said, "Whelp, that's the Internet."
It's an unfortunate reaction to have, but it's true. Publishing on the Internet means you run the risk of having your work seen but also stolen by millions and millions of people, all the time, every day, forever. Even if we got this guy's blog shut down, I guarantee you three more blogs would take its place, all of them piloted by writers who have no problem stealing other peoples' material, because starting a blog and stealing are two very easy things to do. To a lot of folks, the Internet is still just the Wild West, lawless and open, and full of shockingly filthy people. There are no rules, and if anyone's caught doing something wrong, the go-to excuse of "Relax, man, it's just the Internet" isn't stale enough yet that people won't still casually throw it around. And maybe the Internet will always be this way, with fickle audiences, impossible-to-please commenters, distractingly endless pornography, and shameless plagiarists.
But even if those problems never get fixed, it won't be too big of a deal. I mean, it'll suck, but all of the bad stuff can't compete with the good stuff. The best thing about writing for the internet? Even a total idiot like me can do it. Even though there are sites that exist just to steal your content, there are also sites like Cracked that exist just to help new writers build a portfolio and find an audience, regardless of their experience. Sites that will pay me real American dollars to, occasionally, make a joke about a dead president farting into a dead actress' hand.
I mean, I think that pro alone outweighs the cons, but that's me.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's Senior Writer (ladies), and he would like to remind you that you can write for Cracked whenever you want (everyone).